When County Council members gathered Thursday night to field input on the fiscal 2017 budget, they heard only supportive feedback for the budget plan submitted by County Executive Bob Culver.
Only two issues drew public response: the proposal to pay tuition for graduating county high school students to attend Wor-Wic Community College and the county’s contribution to public school board spending.
Culver has submitted a $135.2 million spending plan to the County Council, to take effect for the 2017 fiscal year which begins July 1.
The budget is about $6 million more than the current year’s budget. With the county seen as finally emerging from sluggish economic times, local property tax receipts are expected to rise $6.18 million. No tax increases are proposed.
In a sharp reversal from previous years, the public’s schools spending input was either explanatory, supportive or complimentary. The support for the Wor-Wic proposal was unanimous.
The seven council members faced the crowd of about 35 people but offered no response to their comments. Structured as a listening exercise, the council members comments are withheld until their budget sessions back at the Government Office Building.
Earlier Thursday, however, council members meeting in a budget work session had plenty to say — and even more questions to ask — about the Wor-Wic tuition plan.
In that morning meeting, a lengthy debate occurred; it concluded with the council asking the administration and college that more detail be presented to them at a future meeting.
Largely at the urging of Councilman Marc Kilmer, who said he doesn’t want the county to write a blank check for the plan, members agreed to ask County Administrator Wayne Strausburg to determine if funds can be more precisely targeted.
The current proposal is for the county, during three years, to spend $1.46 million on the scholarship program.
Spending is estimated at $252,000 the first year, based on each student carrying 27 credits; $540,000 the second year, based on 27 credits; and $665,000 the third year, based on 27 credits for first and second-year students and 12 credits for third-year students. After students have filled the pipeline, the program could cost the county $665,000 annually. No one knows exactly what the cost would be, because officials can only estimate how many students might participate.
Kilmer, who with Ernie Davis are the newest members of the council, called it a “shotgun approach that hits a lot of stuff we don’t want to hit.”
He said he prefers a more defined target, with specific needs being addressed. “How are we getting there and what are we going to spend this $600,000 on and get the best bang for our buck?” Kilmer said.
Wor-Wic Community College President Ray Hoy, who favors the plan, said no shots are missing anything in this program.
To be eligible, students would have to live in Wicomico at least two years, be current Wicomico high school graduates, and register for at least 12 credit hours. Each student would have to apply for and accept all available financial aid or grants before being tuition-eligible.
They would be required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average and earn one associate’s degree.
Councilman Joe Holloway asked if would become so easy to get free tuition under this plan that students would stop seeking grants and financial assistance. “We don’t have anything firm about how this money is going to be spent,” he said.
County Administrator Wayne Strausburg suggested the council approve the establishment of an endowment fund at the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore and set criteria that the community trust could employ in awarding scholarships.
Kilmer, though, preferred a contingency “to make sure all that stuff gets taken care of.”
County Executive Bob Culver, who was in the audience, came forward before the County Council and defended Hoy, saying the college president is the expert and shouldn’t be second-guessed or told how to use the money.
In that case, Kilmer told Culver, the county would be better off to transfer funds to Wor-Wic and let Hoy decide how to use them.
Hoy said as badly as the college needs funding, the scholarship program would have a more profound impact on students and the community. Once they graduate, most stay and work in Wicomico County, he said.
He said federal funds will be available to counties that have free tuition programs, which could make it less expensive for Wicomico. “Whether we get that federal funding or not, why knows?” Hoy said.
“We have to look out for the taxpayers,” Kilmer said. “I’m really uncomfortable with just handing the money over. I think it needs more thought than what’s been presented here.”
The plan did have some obvious council support.
“I don’t see where we can go wrong with this,” Councilman Matt Holloway said.
Councilman John Hall said if new programs aren’t tried “things will stay the same.”
Councilman Davis asked how many students could go to Wor-Wic per year and Strausburg said funding was based on the current graduating class and the number of students expected to enroll the first year.
Joe Holloway asked if Worcester and Somerset counties will participate Strausburg countered that their participation is irrelevant, that the idea is to build and enhance Wicomico’s workforce.
Council President John Cannon said the tuition money wouldn’t be going to the destitute, but would help families that can afford a college education.
Hoy explained that children of wealthy families generally aren’t those who would attend Wor-Wic, and even if they do, most Wor-Wic students stay in the community after graduation, improving the local workforce and economy.
Hoy said the program would make everybody eligible for a college education. “In the communities that have put these types of programs in place … it gives them hope. It gives them opportunity,” he said.
Benefits include better classroom attendance and fewer discipline programs, he said.
In the 1980s, 99 percent of community college fees was covered by grants, but it is much less today, around 70 percent, leading to more students not being able to afford college and dropping out, Hoy explained.
“We want to start to affect the brain drain in our community,” he said.
Strausburg said he and Culver met with officials in Garrett County, where the program has been established 10 years, and were told it’s the best economic decision they ever made.
Kilmer asked for evidence and Strausburg asked him “for what purpose would they blow smoke at us like that?”
Strausburg said Garrett County officials will to come to Wicomico County and meet with Wicomico leaders.
“Tell them to bring their evidence,” Kilmer said.
“They’ll be happy to do that,” Strausburg repeated.
Councilman Hall asked Hoy how success of the program is measured. Hoy said it can’t be measured immediately.
“You have to have faith. And then, education is a public benefit,” he said.
Those who stay in school are later able to buy houses and cars, contributing to the local economy. “Something like this helps others have more discretionary income, so it’s a win-win,” Hoy said.
“All this concentrates on what Wor-Wic charges,” Kilmer said. “But this program assumes Wor-Wic’s high tuition is the thing that’s standing in the way and I don’t think Wor-Wic has high tuition. It’s not a huge burden for most students to go to Wor-Wic,” Kilmer said.
“It is for most students,” Hoy said.
Kilmer said if it is, grants money can be used.
Cannon said he likes the idea, but questioned targeting graduating high school students, because there are many adults who want to go back to school or learn new skills.
“That’s your workforce development group, Cannon said. “I don’t think high school kids are your workforce development group at all and if they are they are maybe four years out. I wonder whether we are missing the target and if these types of funds should be aimed at those who have kids, who want to start a career.”
Strausburg again endorsed the program.
“If we didn’t do anything else this year in terms of economic development I would strongly urge that we do this. Get it up and running. Measure it … we have to have some meaningful effort to move the needle in the educational attainment of our local workforce because it is lacking,” Strausburg said.
In Thursday night’s Civic Center forum, Jim Thomas of the Greater Salisbury Committee and Ernie Colburn of the Salisbury Area Chamber of Commerce announced their memberships supported the Wor-Wic plan.
The County Council can only cut the executive’s budget; they cannot add to it.
The council has until June 1 to adopt a budget. Last year’s fiscal 2016 budget came in at $129 million. The county’s property tax rate is $0.9516 per $100 of assessed property value.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at email@example.com
Reach Susan Canfora at firstname.lastname@example.org.